If you're living with chronic aches and pains, this activity could bring relief
By Melanie Radzicki McManus, CNN
(CNN) -- One benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic is that people are focusing more on their health and wellness. And a growing part of this focus involves assisted stretching, an industry that is developing rapidly.
Take StretchLab, an assisted stretching company headquartered in Irvine, California. The business had 72 locations pre-pandemic. Today, there are more than 150 StretchLab studios across the United States, with 600-plus franchises in development, both in the US and abroad, according to Verdine Baker, StretchLab's president.
"People are starting to see stretching as that modality that fits into health and wellness, similar to physical therapy or chiropractic care," Baker said.
Assisted stretching involves a trained practitioner stretching your body for you, generally at a dedicated facility. The stretches are done both manually and using specialty equipment. Stretching programs are tailored to individuals and their goals, and may involve weekly visits for a month or two. Many facilities also offer group classes, virtual instruction and more.
Address chronic pain and stiffness
Within the assisted stretching umbrella are niche facilities such as Stretch Chi, which focuses on the Ki-Hara method of resistance stretching, and Kika Stretch Studios, which employ the Kika method, based on a dancer's approach to assisted stretching.
Practitioners claim there are numerous benefits to assisted stretching, such as increasing your flexibility, blood circulation and range of motion. It also helps decrease pain and stiffness, and it lowers your risk of injury. Assisted stretching can improve your core strength and posture, and enhance your athletic performance while reducing your recovery time. Stretching is even touted as a way to lower your stress levels, improve your sleep and boost your energy.
With such a wide range of benefits, it's not surprising that StretchLab's customers range in age from 4 to 90-plus, and encompass people as varied as the sedentary, those with movement disorders and neuromuscular disease, and pro athletes.
"Most are everyday folks who have gone through life having normalized things like lower back pain and neck pain," Baker said. "But those pains are not normal. Something is not moving properly. These are the types of folks we're helping."
Guidance and consistency
While people have the ability to stretch effectively by themselves, and that's the ultimate goal at many assisted stretching places, that typically doesn't happen, said Jeff Brannigan, cofounder and program director at Stretch*d, an assisted stretching business based in New York City.
"People tend to not stretch, or they stretch the wrong way," he said. "They tend to hold positions too long or force themselves into positions they're not prepared for, which can have adverse effects on the body."
In addition, people simply can't perform certain stretches by themselves, nor can they attain as deep of a stretch as a professional can.
There hasn't been much research yet on the effectiveness of assisted stretching versus individual stretching. And some of the studies that have been done offer conflicting or unhelpful results.
What the science says
For example, a preliminary study on the impact of an active assisted stretching program in older adults found it did help increase their range of motion, mobility and functional power, although the control group merely attended classes requiring minor physical activity. An Illinois State University study said proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation -- a specific stretching technique -- improved hamstring flexibility whether it was performed assisted or unassisted. And a third study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, found the benefits of stretching to be individual to the population studied.
The jury is out whether assisted stretching is better than unassisted stretching, said Rami Hashish, founder of the National Biomechanics Institute, based in Santa Monica, California. Still, it doesn't mean there is no value to assisted stretching.
"Many find it difficult to not only stick to a consistent stretching routine but also push themselves when they do stretch," he said. "With that in mind, if going to an assisted stretching facility helps in keeping you consistent, it can absolutely prove to be beneficial."
Not just for pain management
If you're wondering whether assisted stretching may be helpful to you, Brannigan recommended giving it a try, even if you're not experiencing specific pains. That's because a lot of people have areas on their body that are much tighter than they realize, he said. And second, most of us sit far too much, a major health concern.
"Sitting all the time is like a ticking time bomb," Brannigan said. "If you compare the stress it puts on your body versus the stress an athlete puts on their body, it's much easier to help the athlete, because their body's stress comes from activity and movement."
Whether you try assisted stretching for an injury, improved mobility or merely out of curiosity, Hashish urged caution. "Just because you are getting assistance with stretching does not mean you should overdo it," he said. "So be sure to consistently communicate your pain and limitations with your stretching practitioner so you can place them in the best position to help you."
It's too soon to tell if assisted stretching is just another fad, but Baker is convinced it's here to stay. Assisted stretching helped him get back on his feet after four knee surgeries dashed his hopes of a professional soccer career, so he has personally experienced its benefits. He also hears the accolades coming from StretchLab's customers.
"They're telling us how it's helping them with their mobility, flexibility and range of motion, which then allows them to do the things that make them happy, like going hiking or golfing," he said. "If something helps people to do the things they love to do, it's an easy decision."
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